NDP gets its bell rung

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The more consequential resignation triggered by the expenses scandal is not that of Yarmouth Tory MLA Richard Hurlburt. It's that of Pamela Harrison, former NDP treasurer and longtime activist for whom the expenses affair was just one sour note too many.

For her, the bigger issue is that the whole tune is off. There's no sign that the NDP is different from any other government, she said, and no sign of life on the social issues -- poverty, mental health, low-income housing and others -- that the NDP is supposed to stand for.

"How foolish I feel," she said, to have imagined that decades of passing resolutions, organizing and working at elections meant anything. Ouch! And I've heard that from others.

Of course, it's too early for categorical judgments. The NDP is still getting its act together, with inquiries going on in a number of domains, and will presumably cough up some firmer policy directions by spring.

Still, Harrison has given the NDP's gong a useful ring.

Although things are still in flux, the Dexter government seems to have picked up many things where Rodney MacDonald left them. In that, the NDP is nearing a critical point where it risks damaging its own base, bogging down permanently into the same-old mould, and leaving Nova Scotians demoralized once again.

There are stresses in energy, environment, taxation and some other areas, including this one, as an example: A broad coalition is fighting a MacDonald-era plan for a new convention centre in downtown Halifax. They've appealed to the auditor general to get involved. It's a public-private project (P3). The AG has just slammed P3s in schools as a terrible deal. The AG in British Columbia has just slammed a similar convention centre in downtown Vancouver, where costs doubled.

The project will block view planes in downtown Halifax and is out of step with development in other cities with a historic downtown core. And even if it goes ahead, there are places to put it without blocking view planes.

The group has met with NDP ministers where, they complain, they have been "listened to, but not heard." The letter was signed by Peter Delefes, a former NDP MLA and president of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia. By definition, the vast majority of the members of this coalition would be traditional NDP supporters.

For those following the NDP's rise over time, the assumption was that after it nearly won in 1999, it was busily preparing to take power and would hit the ground running. Instead, it seems stiff, uncommunicative, and not up to speed.

Personally, for now I'm putting it down to rookie jitters. But I'll be grumpy if it's the same in six months.

What were they doing during the last 10 years? There was the period of constructive co-operation with John Hamm's Tory government; then, as the election approached, the time of ducking Tory barbs (how silly Rodney MacDonald's attempts to tar the NDP as dangerous socialists look now). In both cases, the project was to be as "conservative" as possible so as not to play into Tory propaganda and spook the public. They may have succeeded too well.

So much so that, with regard to the expenses scandal, the question is whether our culture of backward politics is still in fact not dead, and has once again disarmed and frustrated a reform movement. These political folkways -- marked mainly by a weak democratic instinct -- exist among the people, not just politicians.

I note that Richard Hurlburt, a politician who brought home the bacon, is being stoutly defended by some, making me believe that if he were to stand again in the coming byelection in his vacant seat, he might actually win. (Who else are they going to vote for if, in their estimation, "they're all crooks" anyway?) Which leads me to observe that some of the anger over expenses, especially in rural areas, is thin. It's more like a heightened passive cynicism that says: I told you so; it's a fact of life and it will never change.

Meanwhile, for the NDP, its challenge is not just to clean up the expenses mess, but to revisit its principles, get in touch with its people on the ground before they disappear, and rediscover the reforming ardour that brought it to power while the window of opportunity is still open. Otherwise it's going to be a rough four years.

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